Difficult to learn, drum fills for beginners can be enigmatic, and can even be frustrating in the intermediate stages. It is a slow process to learn how to do a drum fill properly. The amount of possible drum fills is infinite, which might seem like a daunting number to a beginning student, but if one applies the basic concepts below they can one day reach legendary status.
Here are some of the steps I use when teaching drum fills to my students in order to always have them progressively improving. Each step has the potential to yield immediate results, but will take a lifetime of study to master. Be patient and diligent and the results will come.
1. Strong Rhythmic Foundation
Learn to read music and learn how to count the rhythms you are playing. This will help you a lot with keeping track of where you are in the measure, and will help you to know when to start your drum fill.
Under every complex rhythmic pattern is a simple rhythmical idea. No matter how far you want to take your ideas in terms of complexity, you NEED to have a strong rhythmic foundation. Otherwise you will have no weight or wisdom behind what you are playing and will always sound lacking.
For new rhythmic ideas I highly recommend two books:
Accents in your drum fills will add a lot of spice to them. I highly recommend working through the accent sections at the back of Syncopation to start with. Play them first as written on the snare drum with quarter notes on the bass drum, and then get creative with them. Play the accents on the toms, on the cymbals, rims, however you can think of.
Check out my YouTube videos demonstrating playing accents on the toms:
3. Relate to the Music
Listen closely enough to the music and you will be able to grab onto a rhythm that was played by another musician to use as a launchpad for your drum fill. This can be a difficult concept to define, but if you are being an active and sensitive listener then you shouldn’t have a problem hearing melodic and rhythmic content to draw from.
4. Ghost Notes
Ghost notes are necessary for having a strong dynamic concept, which is absolutely necessary for developing incredible drum fills. Use stick heights to create different dynamic levels within a fill. Decide which notes & rhythms are the important on and play those louder; play the non-accented notes as quietly as possible.
You will need to practice ghost notes with a metronome to make sure that you don’t deviate from the tempo while working on these exaggerated stick heights and arms motions.
5. Mixed Sticking Patterns
Practice mixing-up combinations of singles and doubles to get new ideas for your fills. Take the patterns from stick control and play them around the drums. If I had to make a guess at which percentage of drum fills are combinations of singles and doubles then I couldn’t. I don’t know how many exactly. But what I can tell you from personal experience is that the majority of the drum fills we do is a combination of singles and doubles. Therefore, practicing mixed sticking patterns is one of the most important things that we can work on as drummers. There are endless combinations of the two, and what I highly recommend doing is checking out the book Stick Control as it is the best resource on mixed sticking patterns that I have ever found.
Check out Stick Control by George Lawrence Stone
Play the same pattern and either systematically or randomly move the pattern around the drums. This will give you new ideas for your fills and will give you a larger vocabulary to draw from.
Try doing things like playing drum-fills going the opposite direction of how you would usually play it. Try starting on the floor tom and going the reverse direction up to the snare drum. Make sure to pay attention to which hand you will lead with as to not come out of the fill in an awkward way.
Check out this YouTube video of me using simple orchestration ideas to practice a rudiment:
7. Slowly with a Metronome
Slow practice will get you to the legendary status. Pay attention to the placement of each note, the dynamics, and attack. Make sure that each sticking is in the right spot on the drum, and not approximated. Aim for the center to give a clear & powerful sound, don’t settle for anywhere else. Putting the metronome to a faster subdivision, such as an 8th note or a 16th note, can help to correct any deviations.
Start at a comfortable tempo, maybe around 100bpm, and just play along to the click, playing different combinations. Make sure things sound fluid and that your rhythms are tight with the click.
8. 32nd Notes!
Practice 32nd notes to add some flare to your fills. Begin by practicing 16th note patterns at double speed, singles, doubles, paradiddles, hand-foot patterns. But eventually you should understand that 32nd notes have a different character than 16th notes, and that they aren’t just double the speed. Use your ear and your instinct to find the right way to execute your 32nd patterns.
Practice these ideas with a metronome as a tendency of most drummers is to rush when playing busier patterns.
Don’t overdo 32nd notes! Remember space is important if you want your fill to breathe.
For the best examples of 32nd note patterns, check out The Gospel Chops Shedz Sessions on YouTube:
Let your integrity dictate when to or when not to do your drum fills, then it will stand-out even more! LIsten to your favorite drummers to understand when to fill and when not to fill. Be tasteful or you’ll become legendary for the wrong reason!
This step is strictly about musical taste and integrity. Be an artist and always serve the song, don’t be self-centered. No one wants to hear an egotistical musician, it ruins the music. When listening to your favorite drummers recognize the fact that they didn’t become great solely because of their incredible virtuosity (assuming that’s the type of drumming you enjoy). Consider that their choices of WHEN to do their fills is also an integral part of their, and that the notes without space equals something different than what you hear. Make sense?
The most inspirational literature I’ve ever read on this topic was from Victor Wooten’s book The Music Lesson where he talks about a ‘certain’ drummer whose entire drum solo consists of a few choice cymbals crashes. Which drummer is he talking about?
10. Odd Grouping / Polyrhythms
Using odd-note grouping and polyrhythms will help make your drum fills less square. Start with smaller groupings such as grouping 16th notes into 3’s, or learning how to play 3 against 2. These simple ideas are quite easy to learn and are extremely effective.
From there, expand into other odd-note groupings, such as 5s & 7s, and new polyrhythms such as 3 against 4, or 5 against 4. You’ll get a ton of new ideas and inspiration from these concepts.
Learn to play 3 against 2 here:
A basic understanding of rudiments will help expand your percussive vocabulary and add some spice to your fills. Rudiments also improve hand coordination, smoothness and speed, requirements of a legendary drum fill. Start the rudiment on the snare drum and then expand it as many different ways as possible. Play simple ¼ note and ⅛ note rhythms and work on embellishing them with doubles, flams, ruffs, etc....
Check out my article on how to use rudiments to their fullest potential: https://www.studiodrummontreal.com/blog/blog/how-to-maximize-your-rudimental-potential
12. Combine Patterns
For example, if you really like to play the 6-stroke roll OR a paradiddle as a drum fill then combine them to hear what it would sound like to play a 6-stroke roll AND a paradiddle in sequence. Try playing on of them with 8th notes and then the other one with 16th notes, and then switch them around. Be creative and methodical if you want to find the best drum fill for a particular rudimental combination.
Show your musical maturity by NOT cramming a drum fill with as many notes as possible. A well placed rest can add weight to the drum fill and can take it from a trickle to a roar.
Putting rests into your drum fills lets your ideas breathe and not cluttered. You want your ideas to come across in a clear manner to help the listener understand what you try to portray. Of course there are times when an all-out flurry of notes is needed, but this is should be the exception and not the norm. Practice putting rests into your fills. Write them out if you have to. That’s the easy part, the difficult part is maintaining integrity while you playing in a musical project, and not forget about the tasteful ideas you were practicing.
Put LIFE into your fills by using dynamics. Dynamics are the breathe of music, and as we need to be able to breathe to live, so does the music.
Try adding crescendos or decrescendos to your fill. Crescendos going into a loud part of a song will add a dramatic anticipation to the idea. Once it’s time to go back to a quieter part of the song then try a decrescendo. Play rolls and follow your breathe. Give your fills an organic nature and you will be heading in the right direction.
15. Linear Concepts
Linear means that no limbs hit at the same time. Generally three or four limbs are used in linear patterns, but it’s really anything that’s played by two or more limbs. Linear patterns have a unique flow and have been used in countless ways to create historic patterns. Check out recordings such as Steve Gadd on “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”, where Gadd combines various double stroke patterns between his hands and feet.
Gary Chaffee has an incredible book that I have been using for years and can personally vouch for! Check it out here: Check Current Prices on Amazon
Also, David Garbaldi’s book “Future Sounds” has a ton of great linear patterns that sound great as grooves and fills. Check Current Prices on Amazon
16. Find a Teacher
Look for local-teachers in your area, or contact me for Skype lessons. A professional teacher can help you work through the seemingly endless possibilities to find the combinations that make you tick and that will put you on the path to greatness. The only thing left to do will be for you to put in the hard work.
17. Sing, Sing, Sing!
Practice singing drum fills, this will drastically improve your ability to execute them. Listen to drummers you admire and when you hear a drum fill, pause the song and try to replicate it with your voice. Often overlooked, this is a very important skill to develop, the ability to
18. Articulate and Purposeful
Think of your drum-fills as part of the overall groove and flow of the song. This will help to ensure that your ‘fills’ have purpose - power and articulation, rather than just being used to ‘fill a gap’. Drum fills have a musical function.
Keeping a powerful sound with the drum fills also helps you keep in time with the song and will make them clear and memorable to the listening audience
At the beginning stages it's important to copy your favourite drummers. Oh wait? You don't copy? You have your own style? If so then this article is not for you, and maybe you might be better suited a more technically-based concept, such as my permutation article. But if you are into emulating then congratulations, you've reached the first stage in taking it to the next level!
The best way to copy from your choice drummers is to listen to them over and over and over and over and over again. The same 2 seconds if that's what it takes. Learn not only the drums they are hitting for that particular drum-fill, but also try to figure out the exact sticking they use, which part of the drum or cymbal are they striking, and at which dynamic levels.
If your ear is not yet fully developed then you have three options:
#1 - Look online to see if somebody already notated the drum-fill (I transcribe at a very reasonable rate BTW)
#2 - Check on YouTube to see if someone has done a lesson on that song. Chances are moderate-to-good, depending on the popularity of that particular song.
#3 - Get a teacher!
Once you’ve copied a drum fill, then make sure to do something with it. If you only learn it and don’t experiment with the new tool, you will never reach your full potential. Also, if you just memorize someone else’s idea, when your in the heat of the battle performing in front of thousands of screaming fans, the only thing you’ll think to do is to play that drum fill you heard someone else already do. Expand the idea so when it comes your time to shine then you’ll have an individual statement to make.
So in the end, how does one make one’s drum fills achieve legendary status? PRACTICE! Lots and lots of practice, in a mindful way will bring to the level of the drum gods. Oh, and patience, because 6 months just ain’t gonna cut it. Sorry but it’s true.
You need to develop your ideas to the core of their being and expand them to the heavens. If you want to copy and sound like everybody else then do it if it will make you happy. But if you want to leave a mark on the history of music that will never be forgotten, then realize what you’ve decided….. And get to work.
by: Brandon Goodwin
Montreal, QC, Canada
As I often mention, there is no substitute for a good teacher. If you have questions, or perhaps need clarification then I strongly encourage you to find a teacher and work through these ideas with them. You will develop much more quickly and will eradicate any bad habits that could develop if practicing without guidance. You can always contact me about lessons at my studio in Montreal, or on Skype. But this isn’t about me, it’s about the art of drumming, so find the best teacher you can and stick with it.
Brandon Goodwin Bio
Brandon has worked with renowned jazz musicians such as Braxton Cook, Grammy-award winning artists Delfeayo Marsalis, and Kebbi Williams, as well as some of Canada’s top talent, including Fraser Hollins, Al McLean, and Samuel Blais.
Brandon has studied with some of Canada’s top drummers, including, Nasyr Abdul Al-Kabyr (Dizzy Gillespie), Dave Laing, and Dave Robbins, and has also studied privately with internationally acclaimed drummers Ari Hoenig and Dan Weiss.
He has taught masterclasses at high schools and universities in Canada and the U.S. and is the owner/principal operator of Studio Drum MTL. Based out of Verdun QC, Brandon services Greater Montreal, Lasalle, Lachine, NDG, Westmount, and Cote St Luc with his high quality drum lessons.
Brandon’s group B’s Bees has performed concerts in North America and in Asia, at major jazz festivals and in some of the best jazz clubs in the world. The group has also performed masterclasses at high schools and in universities in Canada, the U.S. and in Asia.
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